By Max Behlke
In 1975, "Schoolhouse Rock!" debuted the song “I’m Just a Bill,” a now infamous pop culture segment that describes what most people think of how a bill passes Congress.
Now if it were only that simple.
Unlike the Senate, when a bill is reported from one of the House committees, it is typically referred to the Rules Committee, which determines what rules will govern debate on the legislation by the chamber.
Rules can be set regarding what, if any, amendments will be considered or the amount of speaking time assigned to each bill or resolution.
Later this week, the House will use the “Queen of the Hill” rule to determine which budget proposal will be adopted by the chamber.
Confused yet? Here's some historical context.
The Rules Committee often adopts “special rules” to regulate floor debate of specific legislative measures and when adopted, can supersede standing House rules but only for that specific legislation. Standing House rules normally do not allow for amendments to text that have already been amended.
Subsequently, when a substitute bill for the full text of a bill has been adopted, no other amendments can be considered. However, special rules would allow such amendments notwithstanding the previous amendment. These rules allow the chamber to consider alternative proposals in sequence, which would normally not be allowed.
In 1981, this practice began when the Rules Committee developed the “King of the Hill” rule. This rule allowed for sequential votes on amendments to the same text. Ultimately, the language adopted by the House was the last vote on language that received the majority of the votes. For instance, the House may first consider and pass a bill with 300 votes and then pass an alternative with 290.
As the alternative was voted upon last, that language would be adopted by the chamber. Initially used infrequently, the usage of the rule peaked in the 101st Congress as it was employed 19 times. And as it was used more often, it was found that the order in which the alternative texts were considered significantly impacted what language was ultimately adopted. Therefore, the Rules Committee modified the language to “Queen of the Hill.”
Like, “King of the Hill,” “Queen of the Hill” allows for sequential votes on amendments to the same language. However, “Queen of the Hill” states that whatever measure received the most votes, regardless of the order in which it was voted on, will be adopted. This allows for competing proposals to each be considered by the House, yet ensures that the measure that has the most support be adopted.
Later this week, the House will again employ “Queen of the Hill” for a series of votes on six competing budget proposals:
- One reported by the Budget Committee.
- An almost identical version with an additional $2 billion for overseas operations.
- A Democratic budget.
- A Republican study committee.
- A Progressive Caucus proposal.
- A budget from the Congressional Black Caucus.
House leadership hopes that usage of the rule will satisfy both the “deficit hawks” and “defense hawks” in their caucus as each will have the opportunity to have their budget passed. As for the result, we will find out later this week.
It’s probably a good thing that Schoolhouse Rock! is no longer on the air, because writing this procedure in a short song would be a mighty feat. But then again, it is Schoolhouse Rock!....
Max Behlke is manager of state-federal relations in NCSL's Washington, D.C., office. Email Max